#FeesMustFall is not About Fees

2016-10-14 09:04

For a second year in succession now, students in South African universities have shut down down the university sector under the banner of what has come to be known as a demand for the scrapping of university fees. With the passage of time, the tempers have risen, panic has set in, paranoia has spread, terror has spread, shock has deepened and confusion has increased.

Why is it so? This is because the #FeesMustFall movement in its great diversities and contradictions is not really about the one thing that we have elevated above all other issues: fees. We have sought in our shock and dismay, excitement or depression to simplify a complex and multi-faceted development. It is much easier for us to understand this turbulence on the journey from the South Africa we reject to the one we want by making it simpler than it is.

It is a movement, which means it is not a single organization or even a network of organizations, but we understand this whole youth agency as a single movement or group of anarchists, ungrateful or externally managed thugs. We have sought to make sense by finding one feature of it by which to describe it, either to celebrate or to denigrate.

Government sees it as a political project that has elements of regime change agenda, working with some external forces to destabilize the country. As a result, government functionaries and leaders have taken a view that this is a problem rather than an opportunity. They have sent the police to maintain law and order rather than begun serious multi-dimensional efforts to hear what the young are saying.

Now, government has finally established a ministerial team to look into this matter. One thought this means trying to listen, interfacing with others in order to find a solution until one noticed that there a real presence of the security ministers in the body. This suggests a thinking about uprisings and rebellions that is similar to the apartheid security state, which was to securitise a matter. While security concerns are real, but security cannot appear to be the overriding motivation for a government intervention.

The main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, shares the view of government in that this is a wholly negative campaign. Like the governing party, it thinks this is about just fees and that the best response is to make education free of fees for "the poor", which in the case of the DS are households earning R200 000 per annum and for the ANC the figure is R600 000. Like the ANC, it also sees the need for a clampdown on thugs and anarchists.

The ANC has forgotten its pledged to fight for free quality higher education. It wants to insist on qualifying it as being for the poor. Its youth league however has been supportive of the student cause in its statements.

The EFF fervently supports the student cause. It has shown such enthusiasm for this that it is willing to start its own campaigns in solidarity. Yet, it too sees this as about fees. It wants them scrapped fully. It understates the violent element in this, but to its credit it does identify the "militarization" of campuses as a cause of worry.

The narrative in the media also see the fees as the message and therefore minimizes the equally important other messages. It also shines spotlight on violence by students and to some extent by the state. The analysis and commentary is however largely about students as a problem and a cause for concern. Very little opportunity is created for these students to speak for themselves. They are the actors but they are not the voice in the narrative.

University leaders, especially vice-chancellors, have positions that are almost identical to government, the ANC and DA, making them part of the establishment in this regard. They have in some cases given up on dialogue because, they say, students are unreasonable and they shift the goalpost all the time, as if dialogue is only useful if it reaches quick agreements. They have invited police to take over the campuses.

Other smaller parties have perhaps lacked the voice and platforms to utter their views, except to express concerns about violence and lack of dialogue during the crisis. They have met the leaders of universities to understand what is happening, but not student movements.

Some priests and prominent civil society activists have opened their hearts and arms to students caught up in the crisis. The few churches with foresight have opened their doors for students fleeing rubber bullets to hide and shelter to those chased out of campus residences. They have served soup to the bruised and ministered words of encouragement to the distraught souls that have been reduced into monsters and thugs in the eyes of university and country authorities. They have even acted as human shields to soak up the brute force of the state and private security that has been unleashed because of violent actions of small portions of large student movements.

This is not about fees, but about freedom through education. It is not mere fees, but it is about matters of justice and how we respond to those who have been driven to madness by suffocating omnipresence of coloniality as a system of power that does not die when the colony formally dies. It is about youth agency and how it needs to be guided for the good of society.

We have the duty to listen and understand before we demonise, denigrate and de-humanise. We have an opportunity in the crisis rather than a tragedy we are turning this to. We have to think about what we produce out of the youth by the manner we respond to their youthful exuberance.

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